Jerusalem is not an easy place to be an artist. Inevitably, every doodler, printmaker, painter, and sculptor who works in the Holy City finds his or her creative output filtered through the lens of Israeli politics. And you can hardly blame the audience for this tendency; blocking out the clamor of the artist’s environment is like pretending to ignore a herd of elephants stampeding through your hummus. The two topics that polite guests avoid at the dinner table—politics and religion—are impossibly entangled in the mechanisms of daily life.
Just taking the bus to work, for example, has forced Jerusalemites to face the rising conflict between hyper-conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects and more lax, “secular” Jews. Repeated incidents of vandalism on bus advertisements that feature women’s bodies—no matter how conservatively dressed—forced the bus company Egged to pass a new edict banning any human images on their vehicles.
Last month, the incident inspired a local illustrator named Eliran Harush to draw an image of a woman on a bus administering a karate kick to an Orthodox man, her underwear visible and a stream of stylized blood flowing from the man’s mouth. In many circles it was denounced as anti-Semitic propaganda, hate-filled blasphemy, and a generally unpleasant image. But Af, Jerusalem’s largest-circulation art publication, put it on the front cover of its Kung Fu issue.
“Our aim is to blur borders between art and pop, art and design, and especially between street art and museum art,” says Leo Liberman, one of Af’s founders. “If this image was in a museum, it would be OK.” Af—that’s “Nose” in Hebrew—is the brainchild of Liberman, Liran Fisher, and Yotam Kellner, recent art-school graduates seeking to build an art scene in a city that scares away many young creatives. “We want to pick things people don’t know, things that are under their noses,” Liberman explains. What began as a black-and-white zine soon became an open platform for artists to have their work widely published, drawing submissions from visual artists as well as fiction writers and poets. Af invites people to send in work based on its monthly theme. The first was Alice in Wonderland, and recent issues have been based around Schnitzel, Sex, and Rock ’n’Roll.
The Kung Fu cover incited phone calls from people who threatened to burn the staff of Af alive. Some Orthodox men banded together to file an official police complaint, branding the illustration as a form of artistic terrorism. If anything, the public reaction has made the scrappy crew even more determined. The theme of next month’s issue, inspired by the Pussy Riot trials, is religion, and it promises to be no less controversial. The editors hope to make an English version so that tourists dropping by Jerusalem can be clued in to the art scene. Together with the Jerusalem Season of Culture, one of Af’s major sponsors, the magazine has hosted various get-togethers, shows, and gallery exhibitions of their growing collection of local art. To date, they have produced 33 issues and started a traveling pop-up studio.
One of Liberman’s big dreams is to include Palestinian artists in Af. “Their culture is the most under our nose,” he says. “It’s the most local art that we can’t get our hands on, and Palestinian artists—they are the minority of the minority.” Will the next issue reflect this wish? It’s hard to say. “Every beginning of the month, we have no idea what the magazine will look like,” Liberman laughs. “But somehow it always comes together.”
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